The Afghan imbroglio is extraordinarily complex to resolve. No easy answers to usher in peace. Following years-long peace negotiations between the Taliban and the USA, there were great expectations for peace. But, Trump’s recent decision to suspend negotiations with Taliban has shut the doors on peace, at least temporarily. Status quo ante prevails.
Donald Trump, of course, desperately needs foreign policy breakthrough ahead of 2020 US presidential race. Time is running out for him. Afghanistan provides an opportunity to exploit vis-a-vis North Korea or Iran, Iraq, Syria or its trade war with China.
The peace deal brokered by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US negotiator, held hopes of withdrawal of 5,400 US troops from Afghanistan within 20 weeks as part of a deal "in principle" with Taliban militants in return of major concession by the US and NATO to sideline the current Afghan Government.
The Taliban, as per terms of the peace negotiations, promised to prevent Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan) from launching global attacks from Afghanistan, to negotiate with other Afghan political leaders over the future of Afghanistan and to establish a new Government in Afghanistan.
However, there were explicit terms and conditions announced by the Taliban spokesperson to include: complete end to the foreign occupation of our country; Afghans to live by their own choice; and ultimately committed to peace if the path of dialogue and understanding given precedence over war. Otherwise the spokesperson stated “We will continue our jihad for this great cause and maintain our strong belief in ultimate victory, Inshaallah.”
A cursory look at the 14-member Taliban negotiating team features the "Guantanamo Five" to include: Mohammad Fazl - the Taliban's deputy defence minister during the US military campaign in 2001; Mohammad Nabi Omari with close links to the militant Haqqani network; Mullah Norullah Noori - a senior Taliban military commander and a former provincial governor; Khairullah Khairkhwa - served as a Taliban interior minister and governor of Herat; Abdul Haq Wasiq - the Taliban's deputy head of intelligence; and, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a senior Taliban political figure and former head of its political office in Qatar, is leading the group's negotiating team. Also present in Qatar is Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's deputy head for political affairs and one of the group's co-founders, who was released from prison in Pakistan last October after spending nearly nine years in captivity. Having suffered in the "Guantanamo” prison, to expect the group to soft pedal on peace talks to accommodate Trump’s domestic political needs is patently unrealistic.
Today the Afghan conflict is 40 years old. The ongoing 18-year old war is now the deadliest conflict in the world. 45,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed. Over the same period the number of international casualties is less than 72. The US has spent about $45bn annually as costs. Trump will continue to look for a breakthrough to end the war to withdraw most or all of his 14,000 forces before the polling date.
Ipso facto, even if the US and the Taliban resolve major issues, the Afghans themselves will need to sort out a number of key internal issues - including a ceasefire, dialogue between the Taliban and the government, and most importantly, the formation of a new government and political system.
However, given the internal rivalries and diverse agendas of various local actors, mutually acceptable solution may not be easy. However, three events offer glimmer of hope for peace. One, two rounds of intra-Afghan talks have taken place in Moscow earlier this year when Afghan politicians including ex-president Hamid Karzai, former commanders and civil society members, including women, met Taliban representatives discussed ending the war. A third such meeting also took place in Doha, Qatar, in July, in which several officials currently serving in the Afghan government also participated, albeit in a "personal capacity". It is hoped that such meetings will eventually pave the way for formal peace talks between the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government.
Two, a loya jirga of Afghans could also be called to choose an interim government which would hold elections once US troops depart and the Taliban reintegrated. Three, an international conference similar to the one in Bonn, Germany, in 2001 is another suggestion to help chart a future course for the country.
However, the key issue to resolve immediately is to reach an agreement on whether presidential elections, already postponed to late September, should take place as planned. Without a full or even partial ceasefire, there are fears that poll irregularities and a possible protracted political turmoil over the results could undermine any peace process and may increase political instability.
If past history is any indication, then peace is an impossible expectation. A society divided by centuries old tribal relationships for whom “War is Employment; Peace is Unemployment” cannot be expected to sink differences and live in peace and harmony. People may yearn desperately for peace. With the Taliban sensing victory on the negotiating table with the US, they will not squander any opportunity to gain total control of Afghanistan while not agreeing to share power with the present Afghan government leaders.
American President Donald Trump has recently declared that the peace talks
between the US and the Taliban were officially dead, after calling off a
secret meeting with its leaders at Camp David
Not to be forgotten are the lessons of the past. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, there has been a long list of unfulfilled agreements and failed attempts aimed at ending the war in the country. As per strategic analysts, several scenarios from the past could be repeated this time round. A US pullout, with or without a peace deal, might not automatically result in the sudden collapse of the government in Kabul. When Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, the Moscow-backed government in Kabul lasted for three years. The war continued and the governments survived for another 3-year before it collapsed. But its collapse in 1992 ushered a bloody civil war.
The Taliban, who emerged out of the chaos of the civil war, captured Kabul in 1996 and ruled most of Afghanistan until the US-led invasion removed them from power in 2001. They could try to capture the state again if a deal is not reached this time round, or one fails. If issues are not handled with care now, there is a risk of a re-run of such scenarios.
Drone Attacks on Aramco Oil:
Saudi-Iran tensions Escalate
On the one hand, when Af-Pak region is in turmoil, a drone attack allegedly launched by the Houthis, an Iran-backed Yemeni rebel group, on Saudi Arabia’s State-Owned oil company has further aggravated the situation in the region. Around a dozen drones attacked the Abqaiq, the world's largest crude oil processing facility, and Khurais, the kingdom's second-largest oil field of the Saudi Kingdom, leading to the refinery shutting down and a 10 per cent surge in global oil prices, the fastest in over a decade.
The Saudi Defence Ministry is confident enough and aggressive in demonstrating that Iran is behind the act. Colnel Turki-al-Malki of the Saudi Defence Ministry said the recovered drones and missiles parts provided “undeniable” evidence of Iranian aggression. The Saudi military has confirmed that the missiles attacks were launched from north. This attack will definitely leads to crude oil crises and will have large scale implications on price of petrol on India. Prime Minister of Iran contacted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Iran was not behind the attack and rebellions might be the game handler. Mike Pompeo also met Saudi Crown Prince to discuss the attacks and its effects on oil facilities. The UN experts have already left for Saudi Arabia to carry out an enquiry. President Trump has tightened more sanction on Iran. On the other hand, Iran has warned Donald Trump they would immediately retaliate it targeted over the attacks. As India imports a large quantity of crude oil from Saudi Arabia this could surge the rates not only in India but globally. The Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has said India has a close eye over the development of the issue and oil supply will not be disrupted.
In such complex scenarios, the civil war would certainly allow al-Qaeda resurgence. Furthermore, the ISIS-K would never accept peace terms. Although U.S. officials have consistently asserted that ISIS-K has been degraded on multiple fronts, the group poses a greater security threat to the Afghan people and security forces than it did in 2016.
In reality, the ISIS-K has made territorial gains in eastern Afghanistan. It would certainly escalate violence to consolidate, whether or not the Taliban is sincere about pledges to break its long-term alliance with al-Qaeda. In 2017, the estimated strength of the ISIS-K was around 1,000. Now, it is currently believed to have between 2,500 and 5,000 active cadres. Its strength is expected to grow, as many experts believe that battle hardened Taliban militants who are opposed to the deal between the Taliban and the US may join the ISIS-K.
Of late, the ISIS-K continues with its terror strikes in Afghanistan. On August 17, 2019, ISIS-K executed a suicide bombing inside a wedding hall in Kabul city, the national capital, killing at least 80 civilians and injuring another 182. Since January 27, 2018, Afghanistan has recorded at least two incidents where civilian fatalities exceeded 50 claimed by the ISIS-K.
The lesson of Iraq is quite relevant. Despite losing its territorial “caliphate,” the ISIS solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and is resurging in Syria. The ISIS has activated resurgent cells in areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The ISIS has between 14,000 and 18,000 “members,” including up to 3,000 foreigners in Iraq and Syria.
In sum, after the departure of the US, the Taliban, the Afghan government, the al-Qaeda and the ISIS- K are bound to contest for both resources and manpower. 10 percent of Taliban fighters are likely to defect to the ISIS-K if peace deal is signed.
Pakistan, the epi-centre of terrorism, has a major stake in the peace outcomes. It will definitely likely to ensure a friendly Taliban in power in Kabul. Regional and other players such as Iran and Russia would all support their respective Afghan allies. Under these circumstances it is likely that the Taliban would maintain their alliance with al-Qaeda.
Most important, the probability of Afghanistan re-emerging as a new centre of terrorism harboring groups dedicated to collude with other groups waging wars in other nations. Not only that, it may prove catastrophic for US and its Western allies what with the Taliban maintaining their alliance with Al Qaeda and consolidating ISIS local affiliate to further expand, but could prove catastrophic for India’s national security, particularly in J&K.
In reality, the real stumbling to peace is internal tribal conflicts, which are extraordinarily complex and vexatious. The Taliban does not believe in working with the present government nor would accept a peaceful settlement with their fellow Afghans – Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, who comprise a majority of the Afghan population. Even the Pashtuns are also a divided lot.
Let me briefly review the internal domestic political dynamics in outline. Afghan powerbrokers – Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras - are preparing to defend their communities against the Taliban and to compete with their current and historical rivals in the ensuing power vacuum. Multiple Afghan warlords already retain independent military forces or have co-opted government forces to serve their own ends. Jamiat–linked Tajik commanders have historically dominated the ANDSF and hold substantial influence within its ranks. Others have begun to mobilize new militias from their historical support bases.
For example, Afghan Tajik powerbrokers - Atta Mohammad Noor and Bismullah Khan Mohammadi - are either already in control or are remobilising militias affiliated with the Tajik Jamiat-e Islami Party. Atta is the former governor of Balkh Province and Chief Executive of Jamiat. He already controls a network of private militias within the Afghan Local Police and Afghan National Police in Balkh Province. Atta controls a lucrative border crossing with Uzbekistan. Also, Bismullah Khan Mohammadi is the former Chief of Staff of the Afghan National Army. He is working to re-mobilize a network of militias in Panjshir Province, historically the base of military power for Jamiat.
Next, Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum is also mobilizing his forces. Dostum’s Uzbeks formed the second major pillar of the Northern Alliance and a rival to Atta Mohammad Noor’s Tajiks. He is retaking control over his network of militias within local security forces in Northwest Afghanistan. Dostum has held three large meetings with local commanders from the ANDSF in Jowzjan Province on July 21, August 3, and August 5. His control of local militias could reignite the historical conflict between Dostum and Atta in Northern Afghanistan.
Hazara, Shia, warlord Abdul Ghani Alipur leads a militia active in the Hazarajat. Urban Hazara communities also exist in Kabul. The Taliban has historically targeted the Hazara in Ghazni and Uruzgan Provinces in November 2018. ISIS-K also regularly attacks the Hazara in Kabul. Hazara mobilisation will likely accelerate after any withdrawal by the US and NATO.
Iran may also become more active in mobilising Hazara in Afghanistan. Iran has returned thousands of fighters from Liwa Fatamiyoun – a proxy force drawn from ethnic Hazara – from Syria to Afghanistan by April 2019. Alipur has reportedly recruited former Fatamiyoun into his militia and an anonymous security official accused him of supporting an effort by Iran to establish structures for a future rapid mobilisation of Fatamiyoun.
In the 1990s, the Taliban’s threat led the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara leaders to unite their militias and form the Northern Alliance. A similar unification could occur again. Several Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara leaders – including Dostum – already support Jamiat member and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in the September 2019 Afghan Presidential Election. There is also an ongoing effort to persuade Atta and other influential members of Jamiat to support Abdullah. So, their coalition alliance cannot be ruled out.
So also, Pashtun’s are likely to mobilize soon. Former Pashtun Mujahedeen Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for example, could mobilise forces affiliated with his Hezb-e Islami Party. Hekmatyar agreed to demobilize his militias in a reconciliation deal with the Afghan Government in 2016. However, he can still call upon supporters within the existing network of militias linked to Hezb-e Islami that never integrated with the ANDSF. Any mobilisation by Hezb-e Islami would likely to reignite a historic rivalry with Jamiat.
Meanwhile, the Durrani Pashtun’s are rallying under former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, former Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai, and other influential tribal leaders, who are preparing to activate their own support networks among the Durranis ahead of an anticipated power struggle with the Taliban. Kandahar is bitterly contested due to its strategic and cultural significance to both the Durranis and the Taliban.
Finally, “Tribal War Lords” dominate the economic scenario and narcotics trafficking. And, they have also been receiving “Big Money” for safe transit of US logistics convoys passing through their domains. Surely, they would assert their authority in their domains.
In sum, Afghanistan’s current internal political dynamics is highly complex, unstable, uncertain and unpredictable. Enduring and sustainable peace in Afghanistan is unlikely without the participation of the current Afghan regime and also without the continued and committed support of the USA and its allies besides other stake holders – Iran, Russia and China.
Also, concluding peace treaties does not automatically guarantee that conflicts will be peacefully resolved. For example, the Shillong Accord 1972 has dismally failed to stem violence escalation in J&K. Peace accords are only the beginning of a complicated and challenging process - implementation of what's on paper is even more important. The biggest challenge for Afghanistan would be the creation of verifiable enforcement mechanisms in any post-deal scenario. Therefore, international guarantors and a framework involving the region and the key international players are needed to co-ordinate efforts for peace and deter and prevent spoilers from sabotaging the process, which by itself may not be easy to reach among contending powers – USA, Russia, Iran and even China.
Thus, ensuing security vacuum may provide militant groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS-K to flourish all over again particularly with the support of Pakistan and the ISI. Increased production of drugs and the overflow of refugees would pose serious challenges not only to Afghanistan but also to the whole region and the rest of the world. Time is ripe and running out to rein in external state and non-state sponsors of al-Qaeda and the ISIS-K. Otherwise, all hell may breakout in Afghanistan and spill over into neighboring nations including J&K in India.
Viewed in such a dynamic and fluid strategic environment, what should be India’s strategic response? Even a layman would highlight that rigid strategic postures would not yield beneficial returns. Instead, strategic alacrity-cum-flexible responses to rapidly altering situations in different regions should be the preferred option to exploit the challenges and opportunities. No need to lean onto and align with the Taliban or Tajiks or Uzbeks or Hazaras or Pashtun Durrani’s or any other tribal war lord. Diplomatic tight-rope balancing act and mediatory role may ultimately pay dividends.
A former US State Department official has succinctly defined the historical context: “ two power axes that intersect Afghanistan. One power axis is Pakistan, the Taliban, and in the past it was Saudi Arabia. It's not so clear that Saudi Arabia is part of it now, but China's stepped in. So you've got a China-Pakistan-Taliban axis. The other axis is an Indian-Iranian-Russian axis. Those were the two power axes that intersected in Afghanistan. And everybody in Afghanistan was kind of affiliated with one or the other.”
The same expert also defined the three options available to USA: “one is you win, but the reality is that you won't win because the other countries are going to block you. So you don't get to win. The second option is we just pull out immediately and you have total chaos and you've got a mess on your hands for years. Okay, we can do that. The third option is work with us, help us develop a legitimate government in Kabul that can properly represent and guard your core interests and create a political process to reconcile these competing interests. And that was a winning formula.”
Considering the irreconcilable inter-tribal political dynamics in Afghanistan, the third option suggested by the expert is highly idealistic and a strategic illusion in the immediate/short term context. It is clear Pakistan can ill-afford to accommodate India’s interests in Afghanistan. After all, Pakistan would like to reiterate its stranglehold on Kabul so that they can pursue their ‘core interest’ of liberating J&K at any costs. Unless convergence of interests of actors of two Axes is forged, peace in Afghanistan is not easy to promote, consolidate and advance. If so, strategic deadlock in a short term context will continue to haunt the region. So, India faces an uphill diplomatic challenge ahead.
(The writer is a Hyderabad-based
columnist and strategic analyst))